"Appalled by mayor's actions"
The North Adams Transcript - Letters
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
To the Editor:
As a teacher and member of the executive board of the North Adams Teachers Association, I have urged our city leaders to consider switching to a comparable, yet more affordable, health insurance plan. Our current premiums are among the highest in the state.
Meanwhile, a publicly available analysis has shown that if North Adams switched to the GIC, (The Group Insurance Commission, which carries the plans currently offered to state employees and legislators), the city and its employees could realize combined savings of roughly $1. 5 million. The mayor has disputed those figures but has not presented evidence to the contrary.
With this much money at stake, and in these hard times, shouldn't the two sides at least agree to sit down and bargain the issue in good faith? And so, I welcomed Mayor John Barrett's invitation -- as reported in the Dec. 2 Transcript -- to come to City Hall because "his door is open to any union employee who wants to see the real figures." I asked my MTA field representative, Cindy Polinsky, to join me, and we arrived at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon.
The meeting began pleasantly enough. Cindy and I stopped at the mayor's office and were directed to Nancy Ziter's office by the mayor's assistant. Ms. Ziter invited us in, and we began a very respectful discussion.
Suddenly, Mayor John Barrett charged into the room and screamed, "GET OUT!" During the roughly 20-minute harangue that followed, the mayor shouted at Cindy, his finger inches from her face at times. At one point, the mayor directed Ms. Ziter to call the police, which she began to do.
I told the mayor that I was a city resident and employee and that Cindy was there at my request. Cindy had already explained that, as my union designee, she had every right to be there. I found it bizarre to be in the position of defending anyone's right to be at City Hall. But it didn't matter. The mayor continued shouting at us and then began to shout for the commissioner of public safety. Finally, the mayor made clear that, as a city employee on the city's health insurance, I could stay. But the mayor insisted that Cindy leave.
I hadn't come looking for a fight. I had come to discuss legitimate concerns and to see "real figures" within the public domain, in a public building. But it seemed clear that the mayor would have Cindy thrown out or arrested if she didn't leave. No professional, constructive discussion was possible, so we left.
I am appalled and disappointed that the man I have long supported and even defended as "always having the best interest of the city at heart" would behave in such a manner.
Argue with us, disagree with us, get passionate about your position. No problem. We welcome vigorous and respectful debate. But this encounter started at a level beyond absurd and quickly got worse. It doesn't seem too much to expect that our city officials treat people with decency and respect. I think it's time we demand it.
Because of the mayor's unwillingness to negotiate, the city has missed its chance to join the GIC in the upcoming fiscal year and lost the accompanying savings. It is my hope that Mayor Barrett will quickly comply with our request to make available the important and legitimate information that he has promised to provide and that he will sit down with the coalition of unions to explore and bargain over affordable health care. Let's not miss another opportunity.
North Adams, Massachusetts
Dec. 8, 2008
Priority: Sent NAT-WWW
"Let the Finance Committee do its job"
The North Adams Transcript, Letters, 7/22/2009
To the Editor:
I am writing to express my dismay that the North Adams City Council has voted to keep information about the city finances out of the hands of the Finance Committee. And I feel I must share some information that came my way back in late December -- information that led the unions to believe both that city employees were being overcharged -- and that the mayor knew it.
First, a little necessary history: Last year, my union rep and I tried to see health insurance information the mayor had said was available. We were cordially meeting with Business Manager Nancy Ziter when the mayor charged into her office, shouted at us, and eventually threw my union rep out of City Hall.
I tell my students that to do nothing when someone is being bullied gives the bully too much power. And so, in part to practice what I preach, I wrote a letter to the editor about that experience. A link to the letter is available at the North Adams Teachers Association Website at http://northadams.massteacher.org.
Sometime later, I got a phone call from Kathy Eade, the city’s former administrative officer. She told me that after reading that letter, she had to call me. She had become too uncomfortable living with knowledge she had of an injustice and felt compelled to come forward. Ms. Eade told me that one of the reasons she left her job at City Hall was because she believed city employees were paying more than their fair share of the health insurance costs and that the mayor knew it.
During that phone call and in some conversations thereafter, Ms. Eade told me that in the spring of 2008, she had reviewed a spreadsheet that had been prepared at City Hall, which revealed that for several years, city employees were paying more than their 30 percent share of health insurance costs. She told me that the spreadsheet documented one year in particular where it looked like city employees were paying nearly 35 percent of health insurance costs. Ms. Eade told me that it was her understanding that the mayor had also seen this spreadsheet.
What were we to do with this information? Before making any such serious assertions about an unfair split, we wanted to see for ourselves if there was enough information available to support this claim. And so began a very time-consuming process of getting documents.
Under Mass Public Information law, we asked for the spreadsheet that Ms. Eade had seen. The city denied our request, citing exemptions allowable by law. The Police Association has appealed this request to the supervisor of Public Records. (We find it telling that at the City Council meeting, when Chairman Marden asked if there were records we have not yet received, that the mayor would not allow Nancy Ziter to answer any of the unions’ questions.)
We also requested additional raw data from the city, so we could see for ourselves what the numbers revealed.
Fifteen hundred documents and many months later, we have finally drawn our own conclusions that the employees have indeed been overcharged. We wonder if our conclusions and the ones we believe were already reached by the city are the same. If their documentation still exists, we would like to see it. (You can see some of our numbers, analysis, and documentation for yourself at our Web site. )
This whole process has been a difficult and time-consuming one. It took us the winter and into the spring to get the documentation -- minus the spreadsheet, and additional months to carefully look at the data that we obtained from City Hall and have it analyzed by the independent firm Boston Benefits Partners. And so it was not until this summer that the unions felt we had enough documentation, analysis, and support to make our beliefs public.
Mediation, arbitration, and hearings with the Division of Labor Relations will take months, or even years, to conclude -- and will cost lots of money in legal fees. If the issue could be resolved at a local level, it would save everyone involved time and money.
At Tuesday’s Council meeting, ALL the unions that have filed grievances or charges offered to hold ALL litigation in abeyance if the Finance Committee would look into this in a timely manner. We would like the city to take us up on this offer.
It’s time for open government in North Adams. Let the committee charged with overseeing the city finances do its job.
North Adams, Massachusetts
July 21, 2009
Eileen Gloster is the Vice President of the North Adams Teachers Association.
THE ADVOCATE (WEEKLY): A View From Adams
"City unions, meet reality"
By BILL DONOVAN, Thursday, December 11, 2008
North Adams city unions must be living in a dream world.
The union's members want the city of North Adams to join the state-run Group Insurance Commission. They claim $1.5 million in savings could be made by the city.
North Adams Mayor John Barrett III says the cost savings claimed by the union just aren't there. He believes enrolling the city in the GIC could be very costly down the road for city taxpayers and would also be a bad deal for the city's employees themselves.
He believes the whole story is simply not being told by the city's municipal union leaders and that there is a disconnect between the union leaders and the rank-and-file workers.
Last summer, the union leaders asked the city to explore the possibility of joining the GIC. To help make their case, the North Adams Teachers' Association brought in a consulting group called Boston Benefits Partners. Interestingly, they never revealed that another one of their clients was the GIC itself. The consultants were promoting one client to another client.
The main selling point Boston Benefits and the city unions made for GIC was cost savings. When making their presentation, however, the figures they used were based on a premium split of 85 percent for the city and 15 percent for the employee, instead of the split the city currently offers, which is 70 percent city and 30 percent employee. This change in the payment split would make it a very good plan in the eyes of city employees. But it would be very costly for the city.
The mayor knew the only cost savings would be to the union members, and that the city simply could not absorb that large an increase. The city then approached Health New England, as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield, and asked if they would offer additional alternative plans without changing the existing Blue Cross Blue Shield plan at all.
By going directly to the members without changing the existing plan in any way, the city put union leaders in a quandary. Participation in the expensive GIC plan was removed as a bargaining chip. That's when the union's leadership, realizing that this would derail their plans, threw a temper tantrum and filed unfair labor practice charges against the city.
What is ironic about all of this is that the union leaders are protesting the city's attempt to lower rates directly, while at the same time, the GIC commission is going to be raising rates on all of its plans midyear. Copayments and deductible amounts will also double. This is because Gov. Patrick recently announced the state's funding of the GIC was being reduced by $32 million.
And guess what? It looks like he will have to lower the state's contribution even further next year. That will mean even greater premium and copayment and deductible hikes for the GIC.
The mayor certainly is not alone in his concern about enrollment in the GIC for the city of North Adams. Out of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, only 21 have decided to participate.
The city also has offered each and every union member a very fair wage package for not just one year, but three years. They have rejected it.
Do they read the newspapers? Can they see the country is in a national recession, and the state coffers are being emptied at an alarming rate?
Whenever the city has faced tough economic times in the past, any necessary reduction in force has always been done by attrition. And in these tight budget times, when layoffs and givebacks are the order of the day in the private sector, the mayor has tried to avoid cutting real live people, especially in the city schools.
In the real world that sounds like a pretty fair deal. The union leadership would be doing its members a favor if the leaders stopped fighting for a bad insurance program and started focusing on a fair wage settlement.
Bill Donovan lives and writes in Adams. Send along any feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Confronting the cost of civic health plans"
By Tony Dobrowolski, The Berkshire Eagle, Sunday, June 28, 2009
PITTSFIELD -- With increased health care costs adding strain to cities and towns trying to craft budgets around shrinking state revenues, a proposal to exempt municipal health plans from collective bargaining, drew support here last week from Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael J. Widmer.
He told a Chamber of Commerce breakfast Wednesday that his organization favors such legislation drafted by the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
"Health care is the area in which the costs have been going up across the nation, but in municipalities at a greater rate than the state," Widmer said. "One of the key factors is that officials can't even make the most minor changes in heath plans without going through collective bargaining. To go from a $5 to a $10, co-pay you have to get [approval] from every union, which is virtually impossible, and you have to give something up to achieve that.
"This proposal says simply that municipal officials should have the same right in designing health plans as the state has through the Group Insurance Commission and outside collective bargaining," he said.
In an interview following his speech, Widmer said the changes would allow municipal officials to craft health plans similar to the GIC, which includes more co-pays, different products and boarder payment options than most municipal health plans.
"The GIC does not have to negotiate with the unions, but municipalities do," he said. "So, we're saying give the municipalities the same power the state has -- equal-equal."
Pittsfield joined the GIC last year, but it needed approval from its 17 municipal collective-bargaining units to do so. The city's collective bargaining units had already agreed to pay a greater share of their health insurance costs a few years before.
North Adams Mayor John Barrett III, whose city has not joined the GIC, said he is in favor of the initiative, referring to the legislation as an important municipal-relief proposal.
According to Barrett, the North Adams Teachers Association expressed an interest in joining the GIC last year, but the city determined the amount that it would save didn't justify joining the state-run plan.
"We want to offer different [health] plans so that our employees can have an a la carte menu," Barrett said, adding that, "we can't do that now."
When North Adams recently tried to raise the rates for municipal employees' health insurance by 1.5 percent, the Massachusetts Teachers Associa-tion filed an unfair labor practice on behalf of the North Adams Teachers Association, Barrett said.
"Many unions strongly oppose it," Widmer said. "But the reality is it saves union jobs because there's a direct connection between the growth of health care and the number of people you can afford on your payroll. It's not complicated."
MTA officials could not be reached for comment on Friday. But according to a statement on the MTA's Web site, the organization is opposed to the MMA-backed proposal because it would not only allow city and town officials to bypass the collective-bargaining process, but also do away with the dispute-resolution process that would kick in if the two sides are unable to agree.
In a statement on its Web site, the MMA says that the proposal, "would save more money, more quickly and more efficiently than any other option, including joining the state plan, which doesn't work for many communities."
The state Senate approved an amendment to its fiscal 2010 budget proposal that used the GIC as a benchamark for determining the cost of insuring municipal employees. The proposal would have preserved both the collective-bargaining and dispute-resolution process, according to the MTA's statement, but the initiative was not included in the final budget that was sent to Gov. Deval L. Patrick.
"The legislature really hasn't engaged this issue yet," Widmer said, adding that it could be this year or next year before it acts on the proposal.
The proposed legislation does contain protections for municipal employees and retirees by providing a standard that would prevent municipal officials from gutting a health plan, Widmer said.
To reach Tony Dobrowolksi - (413)496-6224 - email@example.com
"Alcombright to challenge Barrett for mayor"
New England Newspapers Inc.: The Berkshire Eagle & The North Adams Transcript, 4/6/2009 - Monday, April 6, 2009
NORTH ADAMS — There will be a race for mayor in November.
City Councilor Richard J. Alcombright told the media today that he will announce his bid Tuesday morning at his home to unseat longtime incumbent John Barrett III.
Alcombright, a Hoosac Bank vice president and city native, is serving his fourth full term as city councilor and has been a member of the McCann School Committee since 1991. He was appointed by the council in 2000 to fill the unexpired term of his late father, longtime City Councilor Daniel F. Alcombright Jr.
Barrett, the longest-serving mayor in Massachusetts, is in his 13th term. He will face his first substantial opposition since he defeated Paul Babeu, a former city councilor and county commissioner, in 2001 for the second time.
Alcombright was the top vote-getter for councilor in the 2001, 2005 and 2007 city elections.
Alcombright was not immediately available for comment. In an e-mail to the media, he said he would issue a press release and take questions at Tuesday's news conference.
"The race is on"
The North Adams Transcript, Editorial, 4/8/2009
City Councilor Richard J. Alcombright surprised very few locals with his announcement Tuesday, as the city has been abuzz for months with word of his potential run against John Barrett III, the dean of Massachusetts mayors.
What may have surprised some, however, is that Mr. Alcombright chose to run this year, as opposed to waiting two more years for Mr. Barrett to retire, as the mayor has made it known privately that he would.
Nonetheless, the die is cast, and let the campaign begin.
Mr. Alcombright, a bank vice president, four-term councilor and longtime member of the McCann School Committee, certainly promises to be the most formidable opponent Mr. Barrett has faced in 13 elections. Already we predict a lively campaign, heavy turnout and a close vote in November.
There is little doubt the mayor has garnered a few enemies over the past quarter-century who are chaffing for change in the Corner Office. His "tough guy with a temper" reputation and extremely hands-on management style have rubbed some the wrong way -- although few can argue about the positive changes he has helped wrought, as North Adams has undergone a remarkable resurgence under his leadership. Also, taxes have remained low and services consistently excellent.
Mr. Alcombright brings a "nice guy" rep but to our minds has done nothing remarkable as a city councilor (has anyone?).
So, our initial reaction to the campaign is, why change horses in the middle of the stream -- especially when you have an experienced hand guiding the reins?
The current economic crisis for municipalities in Massachusetts is no time for on the job training, and we would like to see Mr. Alcombright prove his savviness -- and yes, a little toughness -- which will be needed in the coming two years. Mr. Barrett has already shown his savviness and toughness, and no one has more experience. He is more than familiar with state politics and the powers that be, and at this time we see no reason to vote him out. Mr. Alcombright could make a good mayor, but he may be a wiser choice in 2011 than in 2009.
That said, we will pay close attention to the coming campaign and hope for lively and intelligent debate on the issues. We will examine Mr. Alcombright's record -- and Mr. Barrett's -- carefully in the coming months and will listen closely to what each have to say about the city's future. It's a future that, either way, looks bright, in part because of each man's formidable public service.
"Barrett failed on Reservoir Road"
The North Adams Transcript, Letters, 6/23/2009
To the Editor:
It is nice to see that Reservoir Road is finally receiving a long overdue upgrade. What is not nice to see is that Mayor John Barrett III has failed to provide the citizens of Reservoir Road with long-promised and much-needed municipal sewer.
A couple of years ago, when this project was first announced, Mayor Barrett came before the North Adams City Council and publicly promised zero-percent-interest loans for residents to install septic systems to fix failing systems. This promise was dismissed by Mayor Barrett when a citizen called to take him up on the offer. The current mayor has failed to take action at an opportune time to upgrade city services to those most in need.
Residents of Reservoir Road, Pattison Road, Daniels Road, Woodlawn Avenue, Upper Notch Road and West Shaft Road are in need of public sewer. Those residents pay the same tax rate as everyone else in the city yet are not afforded the same services.
Repaving a road and failing to install basic public utilities is nothing short of a dismal failure to provide service in an area that Mayor Barrett himself has labeled "the next location for development" in our city. The response to the failure to install sewer now, I’m sure, will be that the city could not afford it. However, the city has been able to afford some $1 million to "mothball" the Mohawk Theater. The city has been able to afford over $500,000 to purchase property and have it sit empty. The city has been able to afford over $300,000 to purchase the armory and use it on a limited basis.
The repaving and widening of Reservoir Road was paid for with a federal grant at a cost of over $2 million. Installing sewage pipes before the paving would have been the most cost-effective and the right thing to do for our citizens. Our city infrastructure is crumbling -- we still have wooden water pipes that were installed over 100 years ago.
Our infrastructure isn’t the only thing that is crumbling. By not replacing key positions in City Hall, Mayor Barrett has failed to provide our citizens with a knowledgeable and progressive city government. Recent retirements of key personnel has caused a gap in many of the services offered to our citizens.
It is unfortunate that Mayor John Barrett has chosen to promote his personal agenda over an agenda that is right for the taxpayers of North Adams.
Christopher J. Tremblay
North Adams, Massachusetts
June 20, 2009
"Trust broken with North Adams unions"
The Berkshire Eagle, Letters to the Editor, Monday, July 6, 2009
We hope we are wrong, but our analysis, based on documents provided by the city of North Adams, shows that during 2005-2008 the city underfunded the Medical Insurance Trust Fund by failing to pay nearly $1.8 million into that fund for health insurance costs that would have ensured they pay their share of the premium costs. Because of that, our analysis also shows that during those same years, the city overcharged retirees and employees over half a million dollars.
This is a violation of our contracts and therefore a violation of labor law. Grievances have been filed and charges have been filed with the Mass. Division of Labor Relations. We believe the Medical Insurance Trust Fund should be subject to an independent audit. In response to our concerns about the inappropriate management of the trust fund, it seems like the city has turned its back on transparency and therefore, accountability.
For instance, weeks ago, the city met with employees and retirees on the Insurance Advisory Committee, which is a legally mandated committee designated to discuss the health insurance plans. Before the meeting, the public employees asked the city to substantiate the health of the trust fund. Instead of accounting for how it has managed the trust fund, the city announced additional hikes in insurance costs. The city provided us no documentation about the health of the trust fund.
Bottom line -- our analysis shows that city employees have been shouldering more than their 30 percent share of health insurance costs for at least the four years in question. Our analysis shows that this has cost employees and retirees, many of whom reside in North Adams, over $600,000. What about the last 20 years?
Last year the mayor refused to join a state health insurance plan that could have saved an estimated $1.5 million for city employees and citizens. Why did he attack us for even asking for discussion? Were we asking too many questions? We had to; our health insurance costs have been among the highest in the state. And now, it seems, we have been paying more than our share.
This year the mayor finally agreed to sit down with all of the unions to bargain over health insurance. Why now? The trust has been broken. We believe the city can no longer afford to be self-insured and that the mayor realizes he can no longer use employees to subsidize the Medical Insurance Trust Fund by overcharging us. We request that the city conduct a full and independent audit of the health insurance trust fund. It's time for transparency.
North Adams, Massachusetts
Susan Chilson is president, North Adams Teachers Association. Brian Kelly is president, North Adams Police Association, Local 382. Pete Robare is president, North Adams Firefighters Association, Local 178.
The North Adams Transcript, Editorial, 7/8/2009
Three North Adams unions have leveled serious charges against the mayor and the city regarding health insurance payments (Transcript story, Tuesday, July 7), and these charges should be investigated immediately and thoroughly by the proper authorities.
Mayor John Barrett III has obviously denied the claims from the police union, firefighters union and teachers union that the city has overcharged employees and retirees by $600,000 since 2005 and has not paid its fair share of health insurance benefits. As is their right, the unions have filed grievances with the state Division of Labor Relations.
Already, enemies of Mayor Barrett and forces with the Dick Alcombright campaign for mayor are chomping at the bit, pointing fingers and jumping up and down in their efforts to discredit the mayor. We suggest that they and everyone else sit back and wait for the facts to come in before jumping to conclusions.
Let the state Division of Labor Relations do its job and complete its investigation. If necessary, let there be an independent audit of the city’s Medical Insurance Trust Fund, as the three unions have demanded -- an audit that goes beyond just checking to see that the books are balanced.
Insurance trust funds are complicated, and very few laymen understand how they work. We find it telling that Mr. Alcombright, a city councilor, was among the first to admit that, saying of himself and fellow councilors: "I would also suggest that many of us don’t understand how the trust fund works."
That doesn’t promote a lot of confidence in the governmental body that supposedly oversees the city’s finances. Now is the time for everyone -- the council, the public at large and this newspaper -- to find out how the trust does work and to get to the bottom of this mess.
If the city has failed to pay its 70 percent share of insurance payments and wrangled more than a 30 percent share from employees and retirees, the mayor and others will have some explaining to do -- and perhaps will face serious charges from entities more powerful than the unions. If the claims of malfeasance are unfounded or frivolous, the unions will have some explaining to do.
Right now, all we have are charges and counter charges. Let’s get the facts before demanding that heads roll or blood be let.
"Audit request goes to council"
By Ryan Hutton, North Adams Transcript, 7/14/2009
NORTH ADAMS -- Three city unions have officially requested that the finance committee audit the city's medical insurance trust fund, and City Councilor and mayoral candidate Richard J. Alcombright has put the issue on tonight's city council meeting agenda.
Alcombright, who is also a member of the finance committee, said he wants the matter to go before the city council and then the finance committee so that any misunderstanding can be cleared up and both the council and the public can get better acquainted with how the fund works.
"I think that the city employees are really questioning the apportionment of the 30/70 split in the insurance premiums and how those things are allotted," Alcombright said. "It's my understanding that they've requested information from the city and were given some figures that they think clearly bear out a discrepancy. My thought is that if we get this to the council and then the finance committee for further study, I think it's a good thing."
In a brief letter to the finance committee, the heads of the teachers, police and firefighters unions ask for an audit of the trust fund to determine if the city has been paying its 70 percent share of premium costs and that the employees have been paying no more than their required 30 percent share. They also ask for an audit of the history of the trust fund to make sure that it is "funded fully and appropriately."
Finance Committee Chairman Mike Bloom said Alcombright has every right to bring the letter to the city council but added that he thinks it is more for clarification purposes.
"I wasn't sure if he was going to do it or not," Bloom said. "Apparently he's interested in it. I've already spoken to the mayor about it and hopefully it can be better explained and clarified for people that have further questions about it."
Alcombright said he is concerned that the unions and the council, including himself, don't fully understand how the self insurance process works including how it's funded and how disbursements are made. He added that he is unsure if an actual audit is warranted.
"I haven't seen any numbers that [the unions] have," Alcombright said. "They certainly think that they are solid, and again I think this goes back to the GIC and the request to move to the GIC last year. It's all part of the ‘what's going on with insurance in North Adams?' question. The biggest thing at this point is that if we can put it in front of the finance committee we can have several meetings where we can learn about the insurance, we can learn about the union numbers, we can learn about the administration numbers and hopefully clear this matter up."
Mayor John Barrett III said he was unsure why the matter is being brought before the council but is not opposed to it.
"Let [Alcombright] make his argument to the council," he said. "And we'll see how it goes."
Alcombright said the crux of his point is for the council to take a proactive stance on the issue through the finance committee. He also responded to comments Barrett made last week referring to Alcombright's lack of involvement in the matter up until now.
"The fact of the matter is, I had met with some of the union leadership when I announced my run for mayor," Alcombright said. "One of the things they mentioned was that they had requested information from the city on this insurance trust. Beyond that, I had no idea if and when they were going to return a report or if numbers were even going to be available beyond that. This all kind of came as a surprise after we had gone over the budget. Also the numbers the mayor came up with were very consistent with the previous year. I had no reason to question it then."
To reach Ryan Hutton, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"North Adams Council denies audit motion"
By Ryan Hutton, North Adams Transcript, 7/15/2009
NORTH ADAMS -- Despite the efforts of City Councilor Richard Alcombright and the heads of the police, fire and teachers unions, the city council voted down a motion Tuesday night to have the city’s medical insurance trust fund audited by the finance committee.
The unions have already filed grievances with the state Division of Labor Relations claiming that the city has not been fully funding its share of the trust while overcharging employees since 2005. The three unions also recently sent a letter asking the finance committee to review the fund, and Alcombright -- also a mayoral candidate -- brought it to the council’s attention.
"I have said I don’t fully understand the medical insurance trust, and I went on record as saying I don’t think many of us do," Alcombright said. "ŠThe mayor has pointed out many times in the last several months and we all know that we are in dire financial times. I want to make it very clear that my only interest in all this is to learn much more about the process, get some answers with respect to the issues and determine if there is any financial liability to the city."
Alcombright made a motion that the trust fund be sent to the finance committee for review and that he be removed from the committee when it came to the trust fund.
City Council President Alan L. Mardin said he would take the second part of the motion under advisement, but City Counselor Gailanne Cariddi said she did not think Alcombright needed to remove himself from the finance committee for the issue. The motion was reworked to include only sending the matter to the committee and two hours of debate began.
North Adams Teachers Association President Susan Chilson said that the unions started their investigations into the cost of North Adams’ medical insurance in 2008 and by the spring of this year had "discovered enormous problems" in the city’s insurance setup.
"After examination of information from the city, [it was] concluded the city was not paying its 70 percent share of premium cost for the last four years." Chilson said.
When he finally spoke, Mayor John Barrett III questioned how Alcombright and some of his fellow councilors could claim they don’t understand the trust because they voted its annual appropriation and he has explained it to them many times.
"Since 2002, at various times, I have come to this council and asked you for appropriations transfers of $1.3 million into the trust," he said. "During that time, I explained it all to every member of this city council. The only one that wasn’t here was Lisa Blackmer. I’ve gone through budgets thoroughly Š There was no problem in North Adams and there is no problem today."
Barrett maintained that because the unions had filed a grievance on the matter they should meet again with the state appointed mediator -- whom Barrett claimed has ruled against him close to 85 times over the years -- instead of just walking away and trying a different tactic.
Chilson along with North Adams Police Association President Brian Kelly and North Adams Firefighters Association President Peter Robare maintained that while the city had never been delinquent in paying out any heath insurance claims, it had not proven to their satisfaction that it was paying its fair share.
Barrett said the premiums are all being paid and if the employees are shelling out 30 then the other 70 has to come from somewhere, namely, the city. When asked to prove it, Barrett said "I don’t have to. I don’t have to prove anything."
Barrett went on to say:
"I’ve been mayor for 26 years, and never once have we ended the fiscal year without a balance in the trust," he said. "We’ve been accused of tapping the trust for all kinds of other projects over the years, and it’s just not true. In seven or eight years, we’ve never had an increase in co-pays and our rates are less than GIC’s for a comparable plan."
The final vote was 4-3 against sending the matter to the finance committee with Richard Alcombright, Ronald Bouchard and Robert Moulton voting ‘yes’ and Lisa Blackmer, Gailanne Cariddi, Marie Harpin and Alan Mardin voting ‘no’. City Counselors Mike Bloom and Clark Billings were absent.
To reach Ryan Hutton, e-mail email@example.com.
"City owes unions on insurance"
The North Adams Transcript (Online), Letters to the Editor, September 21, 2009
To the Editor:
In the Transcript article from Sept. 9, Mayor Barrett described as "most outlandish" a claim by North Adams Teachers Association President Susan Chilson that the city’s labor attorney, Fernand Dupere, had acknowledged that the city does not always pay 70 percent of the health insurance premiums for public employees and retirees.
Well, we all were at the meeting, and we all heard this admission. Perhaps Attorney Dupere spoke out of turn at this meeting. But speak he did. Mayor Barrett was not at the meeting. Chilson was, and she took notes, as all good teachers do!
At this meeting, we asked the city questions about the current health insurance trust fund. We asked if the city paid 70 percent of the premium costs, as it is contractually required to do. Mr. Dupere told us: "Sometimes the city pays 70 percent, depending on the year."
Finally! The city admitted what our own independent analysis established months ago -- the city does not always pay its share of health care costs and instead overcharges employees and retirees. The city just pays the difference between its health insurance costs and the employees’ contributions. Sometimes the city pays 70 percent as required by contract, but we believe that more often it doesn’t.
When the city overcharges employees, the city needs to reimburse them. That hasn’t happened, to the tune of over $600,000, by our analysis.
But let’s talk about the future.
Time is running out to save money for our community. Our health insurance costs are about 25 percent higher than in many other nearby communities. The city, taxpayers, employees and retirees could all save money by switching insurance plans. In order to get into the state’s less expensive health plan, we need to reach an agreement with the city by Dec. 1. We can’t afford to miss this deadline again. Last year, this missed deadline cost us an estimated $1.5 million in savings. Enough is enough.
If the city disputes Susan Chilson’s account and ours, or disputes our conclusions, then it should open its books and let an independent professional decide. Otherwise, Mayor Barrett, it is time to pay up and to work with us to find more affordable insurance.
North Adams, Massachusetts
September 16, 2009
The writer is president of North Adams Police Association Local 382. The letter was also signed by Peter Robare, president of North Adams Firefighters Local 1781; Glenn Robert of North Adams DPW Teamsters Local 404; Jeanne Lapine, president of North Adams Paraprofessional Association; Stephen J. Finnigan, sub district director of United Steelworkers of America, and Deb Alves, teaching assistant and shop steward of United Steelworkers of America.
"Union is still at odds with city"
By Jennifer Huberdeau, The North Adams Transcript, 9/25/2009
NORTH ADAMS -- A feud between the city and the North Adams Teachers Union continues after attempts by a state mediator have failed to bring the two sides together over health insurance costs.
However, each side claims the mediation sessions were ended for different reasons.
The two sides have been at odds since July, when Union President Susan Chilson requested an independent audit of the city's health insurance trust fund be performed by the City Council. The council denied the request, with four votes against the audit and three votes in favor.
The union claims that the city has failed to continuously pay its 70 percent share into the fund over the past several years, which Chilson says results in city employees footing more than their 30 percent share of health insurance costs.
Alison Harris, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said Tuesday that the department "could not offer comment" on the proceedings.
"It's my understanding that the mediator ended the sessions because the city failed to supply information by a set deadline," Chilson said on Wednesday. "We had provided all the information that we had compiled and were waiting for the information we had requested which proves the city has paid its 70 percent. That's the bottom line for us. Deadlines have to be set, otherwise things will carry on forever."
She said that once the deadline passed last week, the mediator "said enough is enough and closed the session."
"I have heard that the city provided some information after the deadline," she said. "However, we have not seen that information. I don't know what will happen to it. I do know that our grievances, which have been on hold with the state Division of Labor, will now go before the school committee."
But according to Mayor John Barrett III, the sessions were ended when the teachers union walked away from the process.
"The city did hand over all the information that was requested," he said on Thursday. "There was no deadline and the mediator fully understood that [acting Treasurer] Nancy Ziter was waiting on one final report to come in. Although I'm not directly involved in the process, I had a conversation with the mediator and know that he shared that information with [Massachusetts Teachers Association representative] Cindy Polinsky."
The mayor said the mediator offered to set up another mediation session, but that Polinsky declined.
"I think [the mediator] was just disgusted with the process," Barrett said. "He told me that he could force the two groups to meet, but that he didn't see any sense in it since the union had indicated it wants to proceed with the grievance process. I know that our lawyer also followed up with a letter to Polinsky for one more meeting, but she declined."
Chilson, however, is adamant the teachers union is still open to discussion.
"We did not walk away," she said. "We have tried very hard to make this work. If the city wants to talk any further, we are always willing. Obviously, it won't be in a mediation session."
Barrett said he expects the grievances will now proceed on to the school committee.
"I don't know why this continues to go on. Maybe it's just the political season, but it is discouraging," he said. "This whole process is just mindboggling. They recently filed a grievance challenging the city's right to raise employee insurance rates by 11 2 percent. Again, they're tying up our time with frivolous claims that the school committee will have to deal with."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"North Adams union says city owes $2M to trust fund"
By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript, November 5, 2009
NORTH ADAMS -- Union officials presented the North Adams School Committee with documentation Wednesday night that they say proves the city has shortchanged the Health Insurance Trust Fund by $2 million over the last five years.
"This is the information we tried to give to the City Council," Eileen Gloster, union member and Brayton Elementary School teacher, said after the meeting. "We felt that we were heard and that the School Committee wanted to know if something is wrong, and if it is, to fix it."
Gloster and Susan Chilson, teachers union president, presented the documentation, which shows the city paying 67 percent of employee health insurance costs over the last five years instead of 70 percent, during an open grievance hearing at the School Committee’s monthly meeting. The union filed a formal grievance in September with the state Division of Labor and Workforce Development after mediation attempts between the city and the union were shut down by a state mediator this summer.
School Committee members voted unanimously to take the information under advisement and to continue the hearing in order to go over the data independently, acting on the advice of the school department’s counsel, attorney Fred Dupere. Mayor John Barrett III, who serves as chairman of the School Committee, did not attend the meeting.
"I think it’s important for everyone in this room to remember that this information represents just one side from one organization and has not been verified by us," Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger said.
During an hour-long presentation, union officials charged that the city has failed to keep up its contractual agreement of paying 70 percent of employee health insurance costs and in the process had overcharged employees and eliminated an account surplus that could have reduced employee premiums.
City employees are charged 30 percent of insurance premiums -- a rate based on projected insurance costs for the coming year, according to Chilson, who said the city is expected to pay 70 percent of the premiums.
"All of this money then goes into the trust fund," she said.
Money in the trust fund is then used to pay the actual costs of the insurance claims and a stop-loss insurance policy.
"The city isn’t paying the 70 percent of the premium cost," Gloster maintained. "It’s not even paying 70 percent of the actual cost. It’s paying what’s left over of the actual cost after the employee payment is used."
According to the union’s data, which was compiled from documents provided by the city and state ledgers, the total amount that should have been paid into the health insurance trust over the last five years is $26,549,587, with the city paying $18,584,711 and employees paying $7,964,877.
However, research conducted by Boston Benefits Partners LLC for local unions, shows that the actual amount paid into the trust over five years was only $24,387,458, with the city contributing $16,337,624 and the employees paying in $8,007,148 -- a split of 67 percent and 33 percent.
"In simple terms, it’s me having to pay $3 and the city having to pay $7," Christopher Caproni, former union president, said. "When the bill comes in, it’s $8, but the city hasn’t paid its $7 yet and instead only puts in the necessary $5. That $2 should go somewhere. In reality, it should have been in the trust fund, where it could help decrease premium costs the next year. In some years, the trust fund has shown a deficit because that money wasn’t there, where it was supposed to be."
Union officials said their request is twofold: for the School Committee to ensure that it begins paying its 70 percent share through the city immediately and for the district to repay the missing $2 million to the trust fund.
School Committee member William Schrade Jr. questioned why the grievance was brought to the district, as opposed to the city.
"The city gives us the bill, and we pay it," he said.
Dupere explained the responsibility of a grievance falls to the School Committee because it holds the contracts with the unions, regardless of which entity puts the money into the trust fund.
"Realistically, you must discuss this with the mayor’s office," he said. "The [unions] have made it clear they are willing to work to examine this issue to see if there is a liability, and if there is, what the appropriate response is."
"North Adams better off in age of collaboration"
By John Seven, Op-Ed, The Berkshire Eagle, August 17, 2015
NORTH ADAMS - There's something I call "the North Adams whisper" that used to exist when I first moved here 13 years ago. It was a hushed tone that was taken when criticizing then-Mayor John Barrett III.
It was as if he could be behind any corner. It was explained to me that he could be — not him personally, but you never knew who would report back to him.
If you wonder what has changed the most about North Adams in the six years that Barrett has not been mayor, I would say it's the level of paranoia. This can be measured in the contented smile of a person sitting on a public bench on Main Street. Benches weren't allowed under Barrett's leadership, a symbol of the uninviting quality that hung over the city then.
What else has changed? When the current mayor, Dick Alcombright, walks down the street in open daylight, people greet him and he greets them back, as if we're all equal citizens of the very same city.
These things have been on my mind and the minds of many people I know when the former mayor revealed that he may run again.
As we live in the post-Barrett North Adams, we have certainly seen some problems. Some of them are out of the control of anyone, but some of it is fallout from the Barrett years, in which the systems and finances of North Adams were a delicate contraption that was kept moving by Barrett's particular brand of micro-management.
Without him in the center ring, the cracks in the entire big top began to show through, and revealed that Barrett was akin to any masterful ringmaster who directs his audience's attention to where he wanted them to look.
And he was a ringmaster. A fact of being a journalist through the Barrett years was that you could not get a comment from any city official or employee without going through Barrett first. And sometimes he wouldn't allow comment. It's the sort of information lockdown that you expect out of the big bosses in Chicago and New York, but a place like North Adams?
NEW YOUNG FACES
I know there are people out there who see Barrett as someone who can get things done. What I stress is that the only way he could get things done is through his micro-management.
He is not remembered as the best collaborator and in the six years he has been absent from the corner office, the city has become home to a number of key collaborators with their own authority, drive and egos.
He ought to know this, since when he returned briefly as city councilor. It wasn't ever to any great effect, but he couldn't have missed the new young faces appearing and exhibiting more authority and energy.
This is not a North Adams that will indulge in the whispers any longer. There are too many prominent movers and shakers who aren't afraid of anyone.
That is why Barrett's style is no longer appropriate to the success of North Adams. You could say the city has finally achieved what it was inevitably leading to with Barrett's focus on the arts. It now has an involved citizenry with a stake in local government, and the energy and desire to make their own changes.
Not only do we have political leaders, but civic and business ones, from a variety of backgrounds, that sprung not from a desire for power, but a desire for community. They all try to work together and with North Adams citizens, understanding that the future of the city will be a communal effort.
No saviors need apply.
John Seven, a writer, lives in North Adams. He can be reached at email@example.com or at vknid.com.
- Jonathan Melle
- Amherst, NH, United States
- I am a citizen defending the people against corrupt Pols who only serve their Corporate Elite masters, not the people! / My 2 political enemies are Andrea F. Nuciforo, Jr., nicknamed "Luciforo" and former Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano, Jr. / I have also pasted many of my political essays on "The Berkshire Blog": berkshireeagle.blogspot.com / I AM THE ANTI-FRANK GUINTA! / Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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